The purpose of gamification

A look at gamification's applications and limitations.

Point A to Point BFrequently couched either as a question about demographics or as a
personal statement (“I don’t ever play games”), gamification is dogged
by questions of suitability of purpose, appropriateness of context, or
even the semantic conflict around the use of the word “games” itself.
Whether you fall into the supporter or detractor camp, it’s clear that gamification is inspiring debate and raising questions: play vs. work,
intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, authenticity vs. contrivance, just
to name a few.

So perhaps the best place to start addressing these issues is with
the basics: what can gamification do, why do we care, and what are its

Gamification’s main purpose is to help people get from point A to
point B in their lives — whether that’s viewed through the lens of
personal growth, societal improvement or marketing engagement. We
all have the intrinsic desire to be the best possible people we can
be, and to make the world in our image of its maximum potential.
However, most of us lack the systems thinking (and discipline)
required to get to that goal. What games do well is expose complex,
learnable systems that users can engage with to achieve personal
mastery — and thus accomplish something aspirational.

Weight Watchers is an example. If you ask someone who has
successfully lost weight how he or she did it, they might answer with
an emphatic “Weight Watchers!” What they don’t say is “diet and
exercise,” which is actually what they did to lose the weight,
regardless of pedagogy. Mastering the system — in this case
Weight Watchers’ gamey approach of points, levels, challenges, leader
boards, etc. — becomes what the user most identifies with as
having caused their success.

In this way, creating complex systems that can readily be mastered
by users across a span of time produces a unique affinity between
player and brand. If successful, it’s a lifelong connection that
transcends the mere exchange of cash and clicks common to most
commercial connections. Good gamification has more in common with
other complex systems in the world around us than it does with games,
per se.

In tactical terms, gamification can be thought of as using
some elements of game systems in the cause of a business objective.
It’s easiest to identify the trend with experiences (frequent flyer
programs, Nike Running/Nike+ or Foursquare) that feel immediately
game-like. The presence of key game mechanics, such as points, badges,
levels, challenges, leader boards, rewards and onboarding, are signals
that a game is taking place. Increasingly however, gamification is
being used to create experiences that use the power of games without
being quite as explicit. In spheres as diverse as HR, healthcare,
finance, government and education, companies are pushing
the envelope of engaging design with things they learned playing
Farmville or World of Warcraft — without trying to build the
next Salesforce-branded Angry Birds clone.

One of the biggest weaknesses of gamification lies in the
motivation of its creators. While game designers generally credit
themselves with a benevolent desire to expand consciousness, most
marketing folks don’t have the same inclination. So gamification
efforts have come under criticism from many in the games industry for
being shallow — that is, lacking the narrative quality of games
made with a pure entertainment motive.

However, gamification is providing marketers with a new, measurable discipline
that can improve the quality of game-product interaction.
Over the past decade, there have been a number of false starts between
games and brands — notably in advergaming (fully brand-centric
games) and in-game advertising (putting ads into fictional games).
Neither of these categories has been hugely successful, mostly because
they failed to take into consideration the user’s conflicting
motivation for playing games and consuming commercials.

What gamification does is allow marketers to focus on what
they know best — convincing consumers to take loyalty and
purchasing actions — using a powerful toolkit of engagement
gleaned from games. Armed with a new understanding of what makes
people tick, and how to wind them up, marketers can build experiences
that are enduring and engaging.

Of course, some gamified efforts will be weak and shallow, trying
to overcome bad products or poor design with badges and incentives.
Any good marketer knows this isn’t a good long-term strategy. Most of the brands that I work with are very clear on the need for fundamentals: gamification is no panacea. And though there have been some duds, I’m quite confident that the overarching
trend is for the use of good mechanics with good products to create
value in every ecosystem.

I’m also certain that gamification, and the underlying motivations
to succeed and connect that it exposes, are not just for kids. The
evidence of this is all around us. Whether it’s jostling for attention
at a bar on Friday night or on a conference panel, making sure our
kids get into a good college or getting that promotion at work, adults
definitely care about mastering systems.

Gamification makes it possible for big brands and startups alike to
engage us in meaningful and interesting ways, with an eye on aligning
our personal motivations with their business objectives. The net
product of this effort will be more engagement, better products and
— generally — more fun and play in all spheres of our

Gamification Master Class: How can game mechanics and game design help you deliver an engaging experience to your customers? This video master class shows you how to take advantage of gamification. You can also check out an early release of the forthcoming book “Gamification by Design.”


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  • Kathy Sierra

    “Gamification efforts have come under criticism from many in the games industry for being shallow…”

    Yes, you got that part right.

    “– that is, lacking the narrative quality of games made with a pure entertainment motive.”

    I don’t think you understand the criticism, then, if you think “shallow” simply refers to “less narrative quality”.

    Many of us find gamification not offensive to game *developers* but an insult to Actual Games. And, for some of us, an insult to actual people who are the targets of gamification efforts. Not denying that they can often *work* given that slot machines work, quite well, by employing many of the same underlying principles.

    If gamification were merely *not that useful* from a long-term, sustainability perspective, many of us would not care. But it risks de-valuing some of the very thing we-society, educators, developers, designers, etc. — actually care about. In the wrong context, gamification can cause a short-term sugar rush of engagement followed by a crash from which a company’s “brand” may not fully recover. Not if they ever care to have sustained engagement based on ACTUAL value.

    If a company uses gamification to increase their customer engagement based purely on deals/pricing/coupons/bargains, etc. then sure, it is a fine and appropriate use. But for those who hope to compete on something of value beyond “lowest price / best deal”, then gamification may do far more harm than good.

    And I find it fascinating that this post is on a book publisher’s website given that in your marketing book, Gabe, you suggest that physical bookstores could increase customer repeat visits by having a leaderBoard for genres based on book sales! To suggest, as you do, that he who buys the most books on a topic should be designated as the “Expert” status on that topic was just too much for me. That page 27 in your book was the moment I realized just how much I disliked gamification. You even suggest that “experts” (I.e. Those who bought the most books on the topics) could schedule “master classes.” (yes, you gave a nod to the potential for gaming the system, but seriously…?)

    As an author and former game developer, the idea that a Topic Expert Leaderboard (with matching badges) could be based primarily on purchases– and in an effort to pump up repeat bookstore visits–breaks my heart a little.

    That many of the gamification enthusiasts do not see this breaks my heart even more.

    Once again, I urge anyone considering gamification to read every word of Dan Pink’s Drive, coupled with further background research, before taking your brand down the dark path of gamification, from which it might not return (or at least not if you want sustainable deep engagement).

    And for a REAL understanding of the difference between shallow and deep engagement, read “FLOW”, the required
    reading back in my days at Virgin Sound & Vision.

    Gabe, you are a smart, passionate, and wonderful evangelist and teacher of this practice. It is not you but what you are teaching that I am so strongly against, along with so many others. It is not just game devs who feel gamification is perhaps worse than snake oil because — like slot machines– it IS indeed based on psychological principles that manipulate people.

    My own personal metaphor is that gamification is the high fructose corn syrup of engagement. Ultimately, very unhealthy for all but the repetitive, dull, boring tasks for which there never WILL be intrinsic rewards. There IS great value in that… It is when gamification is applied to stuff that does (or could) have potential for intrinsic value (like, say, READING) where the damage lives.

    There is no way to meaningfully compare “game mechanics” when applied to activities with the potential for intrinsic value (like a deep game or a physical activity like running) vs. bolted on to things as essentially empty faux-status signals.

    Good use of gamification: get me to floss more. I will most likely never find that a richer, higher resolution experience I hope to one day master, so, no risk that rewards and achievements will demotivate what I otherwise might have found engaging and rewarding and potentially creative. In fact, flossing is a perfect example of where gamification would HELP me.

  • Kathy:

    Thanks for the impassioned defense of…games? Intrinsic motivation? Fun?

    I return to one of my core issues with the “debate” about gamification. Like so many other detractors, your argument is, essentially, that bad gamification is bad.

    It might surprise you to know that I agree with that argument wholeheartedly. :) Just like bad games are bad, and bad films are bad…although some are so bad they’re good, I suppose (see: Showgirls, Valley Girls, Burlesque). But I digress.

    I think you sound afraid, Kathy – and like most other people arguing this point aren’t backing your arguments up with facts. All around you, companies big and small are gamifying experiences beautifully – delivering rich, engaging experiences designed to help people achieve mastery, lose weight, make friends, change the world, etc.

    Or, you could help. I welcome your participation. :)

    We’re having a gamification summit in September in NYC – Come join us and see the good work being done.


    On a side note about “Drive” – I think you’ve missed one of the biggest flaws of Pink’s arguments. In all of his counter arguments against the power of extrinsic rewards, his cited research uses *cash* as the reward. It’s a methodological error to suggest that extrinsic motivators don’t work, when it’s actually cash that doesn’t work. :) Any game developer knows that and should be immediately skeptical of motivational research based on cash.

  • Kathy Sierra

    Gabe, thanks for responding. Good attitude, too;)

    I care about this topic enough to write passionate comments for two reasons:
    1. I REALLY care about this topic
    2. People have begun linking *me* to gamification because for many years I described what we did as including “applying some principles from game design”.

    I want to distance myself in every way possible from gamification, not just the “bad”, because I think most all of what is labeled gamification IS bad. Yes, there are exceptions. And I make a distinction between applying “game mechanics” or “game design” vs. Gamification, which has come to represent points, badges, and leader boards with little concern for the core of the experience or any form of deep sustainability.

    As for Drive, I hear you on the “cash” part of the studies, but actually it is the earlier animal motivation studies that have interested me the most because I have spent most of the last decade researching and applying animal learning and behavior for horse training, where it has become painfully obvious that even horses can be demotivated, with potentially dire consequences, by misapplication of reward structures.

    Of course this is complex and there are appropriate uses for extrinsic rewards to help bridge people into behaviors that do not yet carry intrinsic rewards though they are intrinsically *valuable*. Most sports and fitness activities suck at the beginning… there is very little inherent pleasure and you do not have the resolution to have a deep and rich experience. yet. So the careful application of extrinsic rewards (not necessarily gamification!!) can help carry them over the “suck threshold” to where they can begin to become more awesome.

    That is just one of the many differences with gamification vs. using game design to help people become motivated… In a real game or activity, you actually want to become more bad ass. Gamification does not care, usually. It simply tries to make you *seem* or *feel* more bad ass for doing something that requires little or no improvement in skills. Again it is like the difference between winning at chess vs. getting a small hit on a slot machine. You might raise your arms up and do a “happy dance” for both, but only one leaves you feeling better about YOURSELF and your own capabilities.

    If a brand uses gamification with no THERE there… Meaning nothing that customers can get better at, no higher resolution richer deeper experiences (nothing meaningful to master), then by all means… Gamify it. It might be the only chance to compete, at least until the competition out-badgifys them.

    But if there IS a *there*… something potentially purposeful that users can get better at and potentially master. Something they could potentially even *kick ass* at, that becomes valued for its own sake, then continuing to gamify it is potentially ruining it (refer to punished by rewards and yes, the research Pink mentions. You cannot disagree with ALL of it, right?)

    As for other facts, I have no formal studies of my own, but I do have over a million data points… Sales of our books (an extraordinary number for tech books post dot-com bubble). I have the top two longest-consecutive-days-on-tech-bestseller list books, and the number one programming book for the last many years. These were designed quite carefully to use the *good* aspects of game design, so we put an extraordinary amount of thought into how game principles CAN be used, and were able to dominate our topics as a result. Not because we did something awesome but just the opposite… We used these principles to help our users actually BECOME more awesome. Not more faux-engaged, but actually MORE SKILLED and capable. I also spent several years teaching
    interaction design at UCLA Extension Entertainment Studies,
    and worked as a game dev for years. I am not even close to an expert, but I do know this:

    There is massive difference between helping someone *feel* or *appear* awesome and helping them actually *be* more awesome.

    And in real games and sports and any activity one does for work but can also do WITH PASSION, this matters. What you call *gamification* is what we consider a potentially useful toolkit (especially feedback, crucial for any Improvement) in service of a greater goal… And that greater goal involves real challenges and real skill/knowledge to meet the ever increasing challenge. To apply the mechanics typically used as a form of meaningful feedback for improvement (and yes, sometimes motivation… When done carefully), while removing the heart/soul/core of the user experience… That is the sad part.

    Your example of rewarding someone for BUYING books, vs. what is actually potentially beautiful and deeply engaging about reading/using books. That is sad. If you had suggested some form of gamification as a band-aid or bridge to bootstrap people into an experience or behavior, and then quickly shift them to what is truly potentially motivating for its own sake (like getting people to try snowboarding the first few times… The beer may be what gets them there, but the feeling of flying through fresh powder is what sustains it, but only if we quit making it Just About The Beer and frickin teach them to fly).

    Even when gamification folks talk about how “people like collecting things”, I wonder if they have ever truly been A Collector. People do *not* generally “just like collecting things”. When we collect things… whether as a hobby or passion or profession, we “see” and feel and touch aspects of the things we collect, with higher resolution than those who do not collect those same things. We *know* more about them, we connect to other communities of people who also know more, and so on… We learn more. We become more bad ass about these things. We don’t just collect sh** for no reason, or if we do (as gamification asks of us), we are not doing it for any of the reasons people who are *collectors* give.

    I do believe that you sometimes share the same goals as I do… To help people get *better* at something, but you and most other gamification enthusiasts do not seem to care if its used to manipulate people into the high fructose corn syrup experiences. You mention it as an awesome way to help people lose weight and become healthy (and I agree, it can definitely function as both a bridge and-where real performance improvements can happen, a powerful feedback and motivation for improved learning and skill) yet seem just as happy to use it to help people spend more time watching television or buying a mindless product. I made distinctions. They may be arbitrary, but they matter to me, a lot.

    I feel that games… Real Games… are potentially a valuable use of time if for no other reason than when game principles are artfully applied, the user can spend time in flow… an “optimal state”, and contributor to happiness. But flow requires increasing challenges and matching increased capability… Knowledge, skill, ever more subtle resolution. Gamification mentions “mastery”, occasionally, but not in any meaningful way.

    And I do not understand why airline FF programs are used as an example of good gamification… don’t most people just feel trapped by them? Like, forced into flying this airline simply to get the miles (because they already have so many). Might lead to more revenue for the airline, but not necessarily more good feelings. Not *real* loyalty,

    Finally, I am not convinced there IS such a thing as true “brand loyalty”. We are loyal to ourselves and those we truly love. If I buy Macs, people mistakenly think it is simply because I like Apple. I buy Macs because I like myself. If I am an Apple “fan girl”, it is because of what *I* do with their products. No points, badges, leader boards change that.

    I realize not every company, product, brand, service, cause, hobby, programming language, etc. actually *wants* deeply engaged, potentially passionate users. That’s cool. But for those who do, gamification is not the path, unless approached with extreme caution and a deeply meaningful goal (Meaningful to *users*).

    Thank-you for letting me make a novel-length comment on your post, Gabe :)

  • I disagree with the above comments. My background is in new media innovation and learning sciences. For some time, it has struck me that serious games, innovation networks and learning simulations provide all sorts of rich tactical and strategic methods for engaging customers. There just hasn’t been a word for such a possibility in the context of a conversation with a marketing person. Use the word “learning” in from of a marketing guy and you will get a blank stare. What “game mechanics” provides is such a word around which ideas around deep customer engagement can be tested and best practices can be achieved. That is huge! I agree with the idea of infusing “gamification” efforts with “Drive” and “Flow” insights because from a purely scientific point of view, such practice would make any effort much more effective and sustainable. However, to dismiss gamification today is short-sighted. It seems to me the story of “game mechanics” is just beginning to be written, and thankfully we have someone who has given us terminology around which legends will be created :).

  • Kathy Sierra

    @duff — to be clear, I am dismissing “gamification”, NOT “game mechanics”. I do not use these concepts interchangeably. I think the distinctions matter, today.

    Your views (and those of Gabe) are certainly more popular than my own on this, though. I don’t mind being a lone wolf on this one…

  • Kathy, amen.

    I’ve been battling this issue constantly as I see more and more startups come through the offices where I incubate my own startup. More and more people are thinking that game mechanics (leaderboards, etc) need to be part of every product’s user experience. I think it’s an incredibly disappointing point of view.

    I’m not going to rule out all opportunities for these things. There are certain situations in which they feel natural enough (like actual games), but outside of these organic opportunities I think they’re actually incredibly detrimental to the long term goal of adding value to people’s lives (what the long-term value of any business should be focused on). The high-fructose corn syrup example is dead on:

    “Oh, not enough people are buying are product, let’s make it sweeter – there, see more people are buying our product”.

    I’m also seeing the game mechanics applied more and more in school situations. This really scares me. Life is not about achieving the next reward or leveling up or grabbing that carrot that is always out of reach. It’s about discovering the intrinsic value in learning skills, mastering things so that you can explore the world and all it has to offer with greater depth and clarity and just lead a better life.

    If all kids are taught that nothing is worth doing unless there is an extrinsic reward attached, then I believe the negative ramifications will be significant on the economy, on people’s overall satisfaction with life, etc.

    At the same time, if we can increase people’s awareness of intrinsic rewards (eg. mastery), the world will benefit a great deal. Even more so if we can make people more aware of their ability to achieve mastery, but that’s another subject.

    Anyways, just wanted to make sure you weren’t the lone wolf.

  • Also, apologies if I’m mixing up “gamification” and “game mechanics” – I’ve read through this a few times and am confused as to which people are referring to – it is Friday and I have had a few drinks…

  • Kathy:

    I respect your rhetorical skills, but you sound like you’re speaking from fear and not substance.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve yet to read anything you’ve said that doesn’t resolve as “bad design is bad” or that has been supported by evidence. Are you able to support any of your concerns or arguments with fact instead of conjecture? Perhaps something about how gamified experiences (Nike+? MyCokeRewards?, Foursquare? Scvngr? DailyFeats? GetGlue?) demean people, are shallow and ruin engagement? I for one would love to hear your analysis. And I’m not just saying that…I really would.

    Of course in a domain this new there will be good and bad examples…but I would posit that our (gamification’s) hit rate is better than most industries (social media?) at creating meaningful experience. But I digress.

    Separately, and because I like to find the humor in everything around me, I’ve been chuckling at length about your High Fructose Corn Syrup analogy: it is the perfect example of the kind of misplaced FUD I’m describing. Despite study after study showing that the health culprit is not HFCS but rather sucrose itself, some people just can’t get the “fact” that HFCS is bad out of their heads. They can’t acknowledge that the world has moved on, new data is available, and things have changed. No matter what scientists, researchers or the public tell them, they will never believe. Birthers by any other name…

    And even still, as we acknowledge that sugar (games? fun?) might be detrimental to our longevity (work?), we must ask ourselves: is a life with more pleasure, delight and fun inherently bad?

    We also need to acknowledge that the genie is out of the bottle. We can as realistically strive for a world without sugar as we can hope to return to the (elitist) definition of expertise that you so passionately argued for in books and bookstores.

    That time has passed.


    —Editorial Note:
    Mac (Radar’s editor) has asked me to kick off a series of “open discussions” related to this topic so more voices can participate. Stay tuned for that in the coming days.

  • Meg

    I am no one in particular, not an expert, just a person, just a consumer, just a citizen. Also just someone who once owned a macro-programmable keyboard emulator joystick, and someone who has loved games since they were ASCII graphics, and is interested in the future of games and media galvanization.

    The remark that Kathy is coming from a viewpoint of fear and baselessness is an attempt to discredit her points, which I find valid and valuable.

    As for the question of whether gamification (with the given examples of MyCokeRewards, etc) is demeaning, I’m an end user who finds it so, and the assertion that it is inherently and obviously not so (as demonstrated by monetary success, perhaps?), fatuous.

    I heartily agree that gamification is a useful tool in persuasion, marketing, even behavior modification, and that a particularly powerful tool is not intrinsically evil or good, but that the application of that tool, without regard for real-life consequences of externalizing behavior motivators, and the assertion that anything is allowable in the name of profits, is wrong and leads to bad things. Yes, bad gamification, is BAD *and therefore needs redress*, and good gamification cannot be had without transparency and careful prevention of conflicts of interest between public and corporate spheres.

    As to branding, I disagree with Kathy on whether there is “true” brand loyalty, in this way: brand consciousness works using asociative processes that are a very powerful and longstanding part of human survival: desires and taboos. People *can* become aware of the process and therefore liberate their own decision-making, make rational decisions with their money instead of monkey-brain knee-jerk ones, but for the most part, don’t, and it’s worth billions. Even the most conscientious person cannot deprogram and rethink every decision in life, and must rely on the ancient power of association and habit, to make basic daily decisions, sooner or later. It’s a form of stress-relief to go on autopilot in daily life, once an association is made, and corporations spend lots of money to ensure the strongest association is with their brands.

    It may not work perfectly with all people (some are more aware and able to counter the marketing efforts than others) but it works with enough of them that it is lucrative regardless. But ought profit to take precedence over ethics?

    I find the statement “And even still, as we acknowledge that sugar (games? fun?) might be detrimental to our longevity (work?), we must ask ourselves: is a life with more pleasure, delight and fun inherently bad?

    We also need to acknowledge that the genie is out of the bottle. We can as realistically strive for a world without sugar as we can hope to return to the (elitist) definition of expertise that you so passionately argued for in books and bookstores.

    That time has passed.”
    a cop-out on ethics, with the excuse that personal and corporate expediency, the path of least resistance, is the inevitable fate of humankind, such that critics of that path are wasting their breath. They are not.

    Is lucrative and addictive, more important than good and beneficial? Corporations by design can only answer yes. Human beings have a choice, so long as they defend it.

  • Nice response, no-one-in-particular-Meg. Upvote. My $0.02: As with any current trend, its totally OK to ask the question about whether it’s “good” and if it is, for whom. In fact, we should absolutely ask whether (e.g.) MyCokeRewards good for the average non-employee and non-stockholder of the Coca-Cola Company. Saying we shouldn’t ask these questions, or redirecting questions back to the asker as criticism, doesn’t help anyone.

  • Just a quick follow-up on a lovely heated debate, concerning Dan Pink/Alfie Kohn/the hidden costs of extrinsic rewards: Despite their footnotes, both Pink and Kohn have presented pop-sci books, and I would always advise to go back to the large body of original research they draw upon – e.g. Csikszentmihalyi on flow or Ryan and Deci on the undermining effect.

    Then you will find that it is emphatically *not* about cash what makes extrinsic rewards undermining. The first study to demonstrate the effect was done with preschoolers and certificates for drawing well, not cash, and many other studies using other extrinsic rewards than cash have replicated the effect.

    Has the effect been demonstrated with virtual badges yet? To my knowledge, no. But the vast number of studies showing the effect with a vast number of different incentives, as well as the underlying explanation (it’s about feeling controlled by another person/system) suggest that badges et al. will have an undermining effect as well, *if* the user feels his autonomy is curbed by them.

  • Sebastian:

    I usually posit a hierarchy of rewards that looks like:


    …in that order. These are extrinsic rewards, ordered by observation from complex systems that exist around us.

    Empirically, status, access and power are highly motivational for the vast majority of the population. Stuff is the questionable one (including virtual badges of flexible value) and almost always the focus of research into intrinsic vs extrinsic rewards.

    Of course, the whole thing is somewhat moot. As I often point out, great extrinsic rewards systems make the user *feel* like they are intrinsic. That is, they were always there, and make perfectly good sense. For example, that the head of a company is the CEO, makes the most amount of money, and has all the decision making power is not a universal truth that predates our society. ;) Yet, it (and wealth, fame…status) is sought by users at great emotional cost.

    Meg, Reid:

    Yes, we do generally measure the success of marketing campaigns by how much money and engagement they generate for companies. :) I’m not sure on what criteria you might want to measure them, but the solipsistic one (“I don’t like it, therefore it’s bad”) isn’t the right *scientific* measure.

    As with any kind of expression (art, music, movies, games) some people love it, and some people hate it. Arguing its various merits is interesting artistically, but ultimately the *value* of it is set by the action of markets. That is, how much people are willing to pay for it, in money or time.

    And, FWIW, I’ve never copped out of the ethical debate around the use of gamification. In fact, I program a great deal of it into the Gamification Summit ( and the workshops I run. But the ethical debate cannot take the contours of “what Meg, Reid, Kathy or Gabe thinks is good”, but rather must be grounded in fact, experience and example. If we hope to lead others to using these powerful tools in good ways, we cannot (and must not) stomp our feet, belligerently, insisting that the world should be as we imagine it is.

    We must work with reality – messy, unequal, complex, beautiful reality. Until we get grounded in reality in these discussions, they will (continue to be) mostly rhetorical.


  • Kathy Sierra

    OK, Gabe, let’s do this (since you still do not seem to get it). Your comment:

    “Yes, we do generally measure the success of marketing campaigns by how much money and engagement they generate for companies. :) I’m not sure on what criteria you might want to measure them, but the solipsistic one (“I don’t like it, therefore it’s bad”) isn’t the right *scientific* measure.”

    Given that, the most obvious question for me (and I hope your potential clients) is this:

    Why were you not able to successfully apply this to your OWN product? Your book is, by most publishing standards, a complete failure in the market.

    And I have seen virtually no evidence that you have created signficant engagement around it, either. And if you have, then the obvious question might be why engagement did not translate into meaningful sales.

    On the other hand, my book series designed specifically to use aspects of game design to help people learn tough technical topics, has been one of the most successful technical series of the last ten years. The second most profitable for our publisher, and over a million copies sold in print alone. That has meant millions of dollars in sales, the metric you care about. Our very first in the series is still, today, usually the number one selling programming book each year on Amazon (and most everywhere else).

    You do not get to use the “but my book was critically acclaimed” argument unless you are prepared to tell your clients that even if sales figures suck, critical acclaim is what matters with gamification techniques.

    So when you ask for evidence of sales and engagement, I say yes, that is exactly the metric by which those you are pushing this to should be looking for. And their first question should be, “Why could you not make this work on your OWN product?”

    As for the engagement metric, sure, let’s go there too. I started a programming community in 2007 and to this day (though I no longer run it), it has nearly 3/4 million UNIQUE visitors a month, and was for almost a decade the single largest software development community/site on the planet, beating out even Microsoft and IBM for the coveted-by-geeks Jolt Cola award.

    I would never ask someone to do what I was not able to do myself. You can offer stories of how OTHERS have done things, Gabe, but your own bio lists you as THE expert on this (not “an” expert, THE expert), and my definition of expert is based on results. In your case, the results you want others to measure against do not appear to be working for you.

    Also, do a Twitter search on gamification over the last few days and study the results related to this comment thread. That might give you a better understanding of what people other than me are feeling.

  • Kathy Sierra

    Just to be clear, I am not a consultant and do not offer services related to this. Financially, I “do not have a dog in this hunt.” This is more an ethical and moral issue for me, and I agree with Meg’s feelings about that.

    Also, Sebastian rocks.

  • Kathy:

    I appreciate your criticism.

    This discussion isn’t really about who’s written a good book, or who’s successful at publishing, is it? My credentials aren’t in question (though I have worked for some of the world’s largest companies and governments on successful gamification projects), just as your “I’m not a consultant but know something about the subject” doesn’t really add to the discussion.

    For Gamification by Design, my new book with O’Reilly, we’re planning to do some fun stuff that folks will, I hope, really enjoy. Some of those elements are part of the Master Class that is linked from the article above.

    Shame you’re not helping companies get gamified. As I proposed at the very outset, your energy and passion would be great to have in the gamification community, and you could pick and choose the problems currently being addressed by leading thinkers and companies, including health, education, government, etc.

    They, as I, would welcome your constructive involvement.

  • Wow, a pretty heated debate going on here!
    I wanted to add a little more detail about intrinsic motivation to help frame this discussion about gamification vs. game mechanics. Csikszentmihalyi, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan in the motivational research community have uncovered a wealth of information on our intrinsic motivations. There has also been a lot of push back in the research community about extrinsic motivation – that draws from the behavioral research of Skinner. I have been researching the scientific literature on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation as part of my work on ‘motivational design’*. What I discovered was that there has been quite a few advances in uncovering how intrinsic motivations work in the brain.
    Intrinsic motivations are innate drives that use a similar mechanism to Damasio’s ‘Somatic Marker Theory’ to direct behavior. These innate drives work similarly to other emotional cues and are built on top of our pain and pleasure circuits. They work at the level of the unconscious and have a huge impact on our behavior. These drives are old from an evolutionary perspective and some have been part of our genetic make up for millions of years. There have been many attempts at categorizing the different innate motivational drives but I find Nohria’s and Lawrence’s ‘4 drive theory’ to be well researched and fairly comprehensive — The Drive to Acquire (status, foraging etc.), Drive to Bond (social, reputation, trust), Drive to Learn (curiosity, discovery and mastery) and Drive to Defend. I personally group them a little differently but agree on the general categories.
    This new research on how intrinsic motivations work sheds some light on the ‘Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic’ debate and I believe on the overall discussion about gamification.
    Extrinsic rewards leverage an existing but strong intrinsic motivation through a treat, money or other goodie (Skinner’s Box – where rats pressed bars to get food). They override the brain’s intrinsic motivation system by connecting an unrelated action with a reward that is tied to an intrinsic drive. This leverages the brain’s ability to override it’s own internal reward mechanism; replacing a new goal to an existing ‘drive’. Pavlov’s dogs associate the bell with food (an innate drive) and hence start to salivate at the sound. Monetary bonuses (shown to be a proxy for food) allow us to give the brain a better-than-expected reward for an action i.e. work. Intrinsic motivations leverage cues that we are evolved to be drawn towards — food, sex, friends etc.
    The danger of tying an external reward mechanisms to our innate intrinsic motivations is that we can be exposed to external control and reliance. This is the idea that Deci and Ryan talk about when they describe autonomy. Without self-volition we feel controlled and it actually breaks the reward connection. The other danger of our current obsession with extrinsic rewards like bonuses, pay, badges is that we run the danger of using them in circumstances where there was already an initial motivational drive. In the example schools and education we have come to rely on scores, gold stars and in the process we have sucked the ‘fun’ out of learning. The ‘Drive to Learn’ is one of our major innate drives. Work has also veered off into dangerous territory with the use of bonuses and over-reliance on pay to motivate workers. In the days of factories there was a need for extrinsic rewards, you needed to sweeten the bitter pill of hard labor. In the age of innovation and creative enterprises where we want people to take initiative you run the danger of having rewards take away the feeling autonomy and you program people to expect rewards in a fixed-ratio capacity for tangible results. When what you need them to do is create the intangible and come up with things that are not defined and prescribed (Dan Pink’s Drive is a great layman’s descriptions of this phenomena and research but as Sebastian points out Deci/Ryan is much better place to find the science behind it all).
    The use of rewards and reward schedules need a strong awareness of the intrinsic motivations and an understanding of the dangers (autonomy, extinction etc.). Game designers have been leveraging extrinsic rewards and the work of Skinner for decades. Good games also leverage some of our intrinsic motivations (learning, mastery, social and visceral) and combine them with extrinsic rewards and reward schedules. Everything from points, levels, powers, weapons, health packs etc. are all used as rewards and are offered out on reward schedules (as described by Skinner – fixed/variable and ratios/intervals) and tied to in-game actions. These rewards are controlled externally (by the game designers) and hence could cause the loss of autonomy (or volition), but through consistency, density and tying them closely to the particular intrinsic driver (adventure games is about discovery, first person shooters are about mastery or even social competition/status) they ensure that these rewards stay meaningful. Mapping extrinsic rewards to intrinsic rewards is hard but, as good game designers have shown, possible. (See Rigby and Ryan – Glued to Games)
    Gamification has for the most part started off by using extrinsic rewards and in some circumstances tied them to meaningless goals. Instead of tying a reward to an intrinsic motivation like discovery or mastery, we have had instances of rewards tied to ‘inviting more friends’ (aka as spamming). When companies use gamification techniques to run their agenda they miss the point (pun intended!). This is what Gabe calls bad gamification and we have seen a lot of it and I am afraid we will see a lot more. The example Kathy used (from Gabe’s book) about buying books and setting up an expertise leader-board is as Kathy pointed out a little tenuous (my words, not hers). Just because someone buys lots of books on a subject doesn’t mean that they are an expert. To design an expert leader-board you would need a little more than just purchases. This is where good designers are needed to make sure they design beyond just superficial actions. I don’t think Gabe was saying just ‘purchase’ alone is worthy of expertise status. If I was designing this I would consider a crowd-sourced exam based on the book. The best exam design, as voted by others, and the highest scores on the exam could be deemed worthy of expertise status (this is just a quick and dirty idea to illustrate the point)
    Gamification’s goals of turning the real world to be more like games is hard, but not impossible (IMHO). Through the same techniques that game designers use, where extrinsic rewards are delivered consistently, densely and are tied to some real intrinsic motivations you have a hope of creating more engaging and fulfilling experiences. Nike+ is about running and not about buying more Nike shoes.
    As someone that has been studying the science of engagement and motivation for the last decade I would say that there are some truly bad examples of Gamification out there. I also don’t believe Gabe is espousing this kind of bad gamification. I believe Gamification is still in it’s early days and there are some very smart and talented people working in the field. I think like a lot of fads there are going to be a lot of bad ideas as people rush to find the next magic pill. I also think that we will start seeing some really great examples. In 80’s there was a lot of bad games out there, but some of my favorite games of all time came out in that decade — M.U.L.E ( Games have got consistently a lot better. I think we underestimate people; gamification designers, marketers, consumers and users (or players); if we think that bad gamification will be allowed to proliferate. My only fear is that there will be permanent damage done to this movement as a whole, before we see some of benefits (similar to how AI go derailed in 80’s). Not that marketing is the be all and end all, but there is more to gamification than just marketing. Health, energy, charity are all examples where gamification done right are important and needed.
    I think a little of this discussion is revolving around the term gamification alone. Personally I am not a great fan of the term, but since it has got a lot of publicity and attention, I can live with it. But I am interested in taking the term gamification and redefining it as using ‘game mechanics’ correctly.
    All trends and fads go through this stage. I still remember the carnage created by bad social media design, but over time this has got a lot better. I believe gamification can and will improve. I also applaud Gabe for propelling these ideas from the fringe into the general public’s consciousness. 2010 saw us go from Jesse Schell’s (DICE) and Jane McGonigal’s (TED) talks to the first conference on this subject. We have a long way to go, but I don’t think we should write off ‘gamification’ or define it by it’s worst examples. I believe in technology and ideas that make us more human, and gamification done right has this potential.
    My Background and some Disclaimers:
    • I am a computer scientist with a background in AI research and cognitive science. I have been in the commercial world for over 17 years while still keeping a close eye on the research community.
    • I know and have talked to Gabe extensively about Gamification and spoken on a panel at his conference
    • I am writing a book on the science of engagement and motivation (where some of this research comes from)
    • I work for a Technology Agency (Director of Media Strategy at Cynergy) and work with customers leveraging ‘motivational design’ – which uses game design techniques, behavioral economics, cognitive science, neuroscience and sociology to create engagement in all kinds of software.
    *References: For those that want to investigate further here are some of authors from my research : Damasio, LeDoux, Montague, Wallenstein, Kringlebach, Berridge, Loewenstein, Glimcher etc. Feel free to email me for details if you are interested.

  • I also wanted to add that I am huge fan of your work Kathy and have loved the Head First series since I read your book on Java (this was back when I actually programmed for a living).

    Inspired by your Head First series, I am trying to incorporate as many ideas from my research into motivational design as I design my new book.

    Here is a post and video about some of the techniques I am playing with: